This week, the U.S. Department of Interior released a plan to essentially gut the Endangered Species Act, one of the most popular and powerful environmental laws on the books. The fact that we have any grizzly bears, blue whales, gray wolves and dozens of other iconic species left on our over-developed, over-mined, over-logged, heat-stressed planet is largely a tribute to the success of this law. And so, of course, the Trump administration must destroy it.
With this new proposal, President Trump is dragging America back to the 1980s-style “us vs. them” environmental wars. This fight was driven mostly by logging and oil and gas industry guys – and they were almost all guys – who dismissed environmentalists as “treehuggers” while blaming all of America’s ills on the spotted owl or the marbled murrelet.
From the industry’s point of view, every battle was about all the money lost because some damn frog was in the way, and the feds took the side of the frog, and what the fuck, are frogs more important than a decent paycheck and a fat bottom line?
In the last decade or so, this paradigm had shifted to a wiser, more pragmatic understanding that we are all in this together, and that a strong economy and a respect for nature are not mutually exclusive. And that shift in thinking didn’t come a moment too soon. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that about half the Earth’s animals have been lost in the last 50 years. The beauty of the Endangered Species Act, passed by Congress in 1973, is that it recognizes the fundamental value of the diversity of life and gives the federal government broad power to preserve and protect these habitats. Right now, more than 700 animals and almost 1,000 plants in the U.S. are shielded by the law, with hundreds more under consideration for protections.
There are two important changes to the law in this new proposal. The first allows agencies to weigh economic impact when considering whether a species should be protected. In other words, the proposal allows agencies to ask: What is the economic value of a black-tailed prairie dog vs. the value of a new strip mall? Once you frame everything in terms of cold hard cash, you know how the debate will go. This will have major implications for a variety of industries, potentially making it easier for roads, pipelines and other construction projects to gain approval. “It essentially turns every listing of a species into a negotiation,” Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity, told the AP.
Another proposed change affects how agencies will treat species impacted by climate change (which is, of course, the vast majority of species). Currently, the law defines a threatened species as one “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” The phrase “foreseeable future” is key, especially as climate modeling and other forms of research paint a much clearer picture of the future. So, what does “foreseeable” mean here? According to the Interior Department, the new definition will “make it clear that it extends only as far as they can reasonably determine that both the future threats and the species’ response to those threats are probable.”
In other words, forget climate models that suggest that the habitat of polar bears will dramatically contract in the coming decades as sea ice melts and their hunting grounds are reduced. Let’s just wait and see what happens. And by then, of course, there will be roughly 100 starving bears left, the diversity of the gene pool will be too small to prevent inbreeding and they will be goners.
Greg Sheehan, deputy director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, put out the usual lame statements about the Trump administration “being a better partner with the communities in which we operate” and “reducing the regulatory burden on the American people.” But here is what the oil and gas and timber and shopping mall development folks are hearing: As long as bald eagles aren’t falling dead out of the sky, you can do whatever you want.
Previous administrations have dared not mess with the Endangered Species Act, which has enjoyed broad support ever since it was passed 45 years ago. A recent study at Ohio State University found that even today, four out of five Americans support the act, and only one in 10 oppose it.
That’s not stopping Trump and his Cabinet of cronies. “Government should be responsive to its citizens,” says Jeremy Bruskotter, an associate professor at Ohio State University who co-authored the study. “But our research suggests that is not how government is working, at least not when it comes to environmental policy.”
This is not news, of course. But as this new proposal demonstrates all too well, the only endangered species the Trump administration cares about are rich white guys like themselves.